If you write an article that causes controversy, but that you hadn’t intended to have that effect, you have two options. The first is to wait the requisite three minutes until whoever was outraged has forgotten about whatever you wrote and moved on to the next thing. The other? To respond to the criticism. The latter approach is the thing it’ll be most tempting to do — after all, people missed your point! Or maybe your critics made some good points and you want to offer a mea culpa! Whatever the case, Option 2 is rarely the way to go. I believe there’s an expression about digging oneself into a hole? That’s what happens. A bad take that might have been forgotten stays in whichever news cycle, allowing a whole new batch of critics to weigh in on the badness of the take, and of the sort-of apology. (The online journalist in me understands the potential traffic value of such a move. The opinion writer in me cringes on his behalf.)
David Edelstein’s “Wonder Woman” review, for New York Magazine, would seem to have caused a spot of controversy. Some of this stemmed from what was, I think, an ungenerous reading: When Edelstein writes that the male gaze isn’t catered to, I don’t get the sense that he’s (necessarily) complaining. I didn’t find Edelstein’s choice to mention, up top, that Gadot is a “five-foot-ten-inch” model offensive, and I say this as a five-foot-two-inch non-model. A person’s height and beauty are irrelevant in most contexts; a review of a superhero movie isn’t one of them.
But even a more generous reading leaves some questions. Here is how Edelstein describes Gal Gadot’s performance: “She’s a treat here with her raspy accented voice and driving delivery. (Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation.)”
This was just sort of odd, now, wasn’t it? Why “trepidation”? Is this the end of “Portnoy’s Complaint”? And why, oh why, “breed”?
A quick Google tells me Edelstein is indeed Jewish (and straight), which tells us, I guess, that we’re in the realm not of non-Jewish exoticization of Jewish women, but rather that thing where American Jewish men will sometimes fetishize Israeli women. Now I think everyone has the right, in the privacy of their own home, to put “hot” and “IDF” into the search bar of their choice, with the gender(s) of their choice. But was that sort of approach (and I’m having trouble coming up with another interpretation of “trepidation” in that context) necessary in a movie review? The issue with objectification isn’t that, oh noes, people, including straight dudes, have libidos. It’s the fact that the people with platforms tend to be straight dudes, and the end result winds up being assessments of all women in the public eye in terms of where they do or don’t fit into a platform-having dude’s erotic imagination.
Anyway. Edelstein responded to his detractors in a second column, this one called “A Word About My ‘Wonder Woman’ Review,” which addresses, among other passages, the “breed” remark:
I also should have unpacked the parenthetical that “Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation.” My God, do I stand by the sentiment. They live in the pressure cooker that is Israel, where they have to stand up to a lot of angry Jewish men. (Doubt that characterization? Try driving in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.) They serve in the army alongside men. (Gadot herself was in the Israel Defense Forces.) As for the word breed, it’s nothing more than a synonym for kind or sort or ilk, as in “a new breed of journalist.” But the line was both loaded and unclear. It was a mistake.
I don’t know what to do with this passage. The unpacked parenthetical reads as… a longer version of the original. I’m torn between wanting to point out that “breed” has very different connotations when applied to a gender and nationality (“Israeli women”) than to a profession, and wanting to stop before writing anything that could inspire Edelstein to write “A Word About My Word About My ‘Wonder Woman’ Review.’”
The problem with the apology is that it keeps the question at hand the ultimately side-note one of whether David Edelstein personally gets where he went wrong. Everyone has limitations, and I’m not sure the immediate aftermath of getting called out is when anyone’s level of self-awareness is at its peak. Rather than finding ways for the David Edelsteins of the world to preempt criticism (useful as that would be), let’s have the first priority be diversity among critics, and a wider range of perspectives. The issue isn’t that Edelstein is A Sexist. It’s that structural sexism impacts who does and doesn’t get a platform in the first place.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a former editor of the Sisterhood blog at the Forward. Her writing has appeared in several publications, including The New Republic and The Atlantic. Her book, “The Perils of ‘Privilege,’” was published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017. She has a PhD in French and French Studies from New York University, and has read a lot of 19th century French Jewish newspapers for a 21st century American.
‘Wonder Woman’ Critic Stirs Controversy With ‘Breed’